The Grant Park Music Festival is the nation’s only free, outdoor classical music series of its kind. Each summer, the Festival presents ten weeks of free classical concerts to all of Chicago at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
As a creative response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, Mayor Anton Cermak joined forces with James C. Petrillo, the president of the musicians’ union, to begin what would become a beloved Chicago summertime tradition in Chicago. By 1935, symphonic concerts became a staple of cultural life in Grant Park and in 1944 the Chicago Park District formed the Grant Park Orchestra under the direction of Principal Conductor Nikolai Malko. Over the ensuing decades, principal conductors of the Grant Park Orchestra included such illustrious figures as Irwin Hoffman, Leonard Slatkin, David Zinman, Zdenek Macal, and Hugh Wolff, culminating with the appointment of Carlos Kalmar in 2000.
The Grant Park Music Festival was conceived by Mayor A. J. Cermak during the Great Depression in 1931 when the city presented a series of free concerts to lift the spirits of Chicagoans. The following year, James C. Petrillo, the president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, vigorously labored to turn these concerts into a permanent summer tradition. Petrillo’s motives were twofold — to make classical music available for all Chicagoans, and to provide secure employment for union musicians.
As Petrillo pursued his dream of a concert series in Grant Park, the area just south of the park was being transformed for the Century of Progress Fair to commemorate Chicago’s 100th anniversary. Among the developments was a venue for daily concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
In 1934, Petrillo was appointed to the newly created Park Commission and convinced the commission that a permanent series of open-air symphonic performances in the new shell would benefit the city. With the venue, seats, security, parking and $100,000 raised from the public, Petrillo inaugurated the symphonic series in 1935.
On July 1, 1935, the Grant Park Concerts made their debut, commencing with the march from Wagner’s Tannhauser. The following year, the Chicago Park District assumed complete financing of the concerts. During that time, some of music’s biggest stars performed at Grant Park, including violinist Jascha Heifetz, conductor Andre Kostelanetz and soprano Lily Pons. The concerts were often broadcast on NBC and CBS.
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